Dreams, Illusions and Folly: Better Investments than High-Speed Passenger Rail

As a departure from my usual column on “Safety and Liability,” I have been granted permission to comment on the turning-point fiasco the Federal government had just made regarding its choice of enormous investment in an unneeded and unwarranted technology that will not only decimate the already-struggling economics of our nation’s transportation network, but add yet another profoundly stupid decision to the thousands of others that are pushing our nation deeper and deeper toward collapse. The opinions expressed below are my own, not those of National Bus Trader – although I suspect that many are the same, even if our perspective and sensibilities differ markedly.

While most members of the motorcoach community will likely agree with my recommendations, many may not be as jaded as I am about the context. And many readers are likely to continue begin steeped in false hope and denial about what our country has become and where it is going. A nation’s collapse may indeed stem from a single event, like the defeat of the Spanish Armada, or the emergence of Adolf Hitler. But far more often a nation’s collapse is the result of thousands of poor decisions that combine to waste its resources and drag it down slowly and barely noticeably. It is the latter type of deterioration around which this article revolves.

To accept the recommendations cited in this article is necessarily predicated on the acceptance of certain assumptions. One of them, of course, it the fact that not only do two percent of our population own 70% of so of our wealth, but that with the tool of voting at our fingertips, more than half of us – it would seem like 2/3 of us lately –\C2 are thrilled to keep it that way. Turning back the clock to a tax structure of 40 or more years ago would dramatically eliminate this excess and provide all the funds we need to address our and many of the World’s growing problems. But since this is not about to happen, we have to be far more prudent about the many small choices we make.

Transportation and Urban Form

Transportation is little more than the solving of a time-and-space puzzle. 75 years ago, when most of our urban population was clustered into large- and medium-sized cities, transporting huge volumes of them, at a profit, was simply a matter of connecting the dots. (Rural folks had their automobiles and trucks, and gas was cheap and plentiful) When the conspiracy of our automobile, tire, rubber and steel industries deluded President Eisenhower into passing the Defense Highway Act of 1953 and the Home Loan Mortgage Insurance Act of 1954, this dynamic was altered forever, and what emerged was a phenomenon known as “suburbs,” an urban form that effective squished our population clusters into a flat plethora of multiple, small and dispersed communities. For the automobile industry and its cronies, this approach was a windfall, and before long, the “dots” were connected primarily by automobiles. As a consequence, by 1969, every since transit system in this country (New Jersey Transit was the last to go) had folded, and was either sustained or, in many cases only re-emerged later, by the advent of subsidies. By 1977, a full half of the transit’s industry’s operating subsidies was provided by Federal funds, and like other consequences of self-interested and narrow-minded policies, these subsidies have grown inexorably: Transit currently receives about $9B a year. Of course, that is not nearly enough: Few large urban systems have enough “recovery” time in their routes to operate safely, and a spree of killing and maiming has emerged as our fatigued driver struggle to maintain their schedules. When a single wheelchair is boarded, these schedules often unravel – and, as one might expect in America, no running or recovery time was added to any of these routes to accommodate such increasingly common phenomena.

In the paratransit mode, the pioneering work I myself conducted 30 years ago for USDOT in the paratransit sector has been long since forgotten, and thanks partly to the false promises of scheduling software, the systems I designed and operated 25 years ago yielding five passenger trips per hours have been replaced by a digital optimization of chaos and ignorance producing between 1.2 and 1.5 passenger trips per hour, where managers will a “feel” for transportation dynamics have been replaced by an army of computer geeks – essentially tripling the costs of this unfunded mandate. So another billion dollars or so vanishes each year, with no remote clue among those in charge of it about how to eliminate it.

The pupil transportation sector, imbued with seemingly permanently-entrenched values, has been mired in a traditionalism that has allowed for little innovation and growth, and as budgets become tighter, more and more passengers are slowly squeezed off the bus, and high school and, increasingly, junior high school students, are being “mode-split” to transit service.
The motorcoach industry, without any subsidies, has grown slowly, with numerous failures and little innovation. Only the largest companies enjoy enough economies of scale to decrease their deadhead time and occupy their vehicles for enough time to keep their operations profitable. Most small companies (4,000 consist of a single vehicle) struggle mightily.
Within all this, the notion of coordination has been anathema, and a central theme of the transit and motorcoach industries has been their war over transit services providing “tripper” services to schoolchildren.

And then there is AMTRAK. Slowly beginning to grasp principles of pricing known to other commercial sectors of our economy almost a century ago, subsidies to service in the Northeast Corridor have become minimal, while almost everywhere else, the subsidies per passenger trip are unjustifiable (compared to what they would be had buses provided the trips) and, frankly, unaffordable – like much of our nation’s vast waste.

Rail and Glory

More than one Senator or Congressman has been embarrassed by the fact that we are the only developed country without a viable, full-scale network of passenger rail service (not high-speed rail, just passenger rail). One of the most profound, dysfunctional consequences of this longing has been to create skeletons of heavy or light rail service in medium-sized cities – projects affectionately (or not) known as “new starts.” Cities with low bus ridership – like Buffalo, Salt Lake City, San Diego and even Los Angeles (the creation of L.A.’s first three lines placed the LACMTA, an “autonomous” state agency, $7B in debt) – have been endowed with a line or two (or three or four), lines which make sense only for the tiny one-digit percentage of the population residing and working close to their various stations. Because Americans are so poor at conceiving and designing bus routes, the feeder services needed to make these systems marginally less embarrassing have rarely materialized. One well-known consultant, Wendell Cox, has calculated that in most of these cities, it would have cost less to give every single rider a new Mercedes (see www.publicpurpose.com). But that doesn’t stop the juggernaut of our endless pork barrel.

As if no one learned a single lesson from this – keep in mind again we are a nation where a majority of us favor two percent of our population holding 70 percent of its wealth – the boondoggle of them all has finally arrived: High speed rail. To begin with, what high-speed rail we already have (e.g., AMTRAK’s Accela service) is a joke: For tens of millions of dollars per mile to upgrade the roadbeds, travel times have improved perhaps 15 to 20 percent (at best) over those of existing rail. And this is for trains reaching a top speed of barely 100 to 110 mph – compared to Japan’s famous Takeido line (among many others) which, 30 years ago, reached a speed of 270 mph. Now we are committing ourselves to $58 billion dollars for some form of such service that, if history is any indication, will not be remotely as technologically advanced.

Forgetting about things like the inflexibility of rail (e.g., its cars cannot be diverted for use to evacuate cities when disasters hit, nor can they be modified as the dynamics of various cities change radically during our economic collapse), think for a moment what $58 billion would buy in terms of buses or motorcoaches. To help with the math, assume that for $1M one could buy a terrific, balanced fleet of perhaps one new 45-foot motorcoach, one 40-foot motorcoach, and either a body-and-chassis coach or “over-the-road” bus, paratransit vehicle another form of conversion. This tiny portion of vehicles would comprise a fine and flexible fleet for a single small operator, particularly if he were given this fleet as a grant. Far more striking is what emerges when one “runs the numbers:” if $1M bought a fleet like this, $58B would fund roughly 174,000 vehicles!

Since 1975, the Federal Transit Administration (and its predecessor UMTA) has required cities to undergo a process called “Alternatives Analysis,” a process created ostensibly for grant recipients to consider less costly alternatives to rail “new starts.” Of course, politics being what they are, and political officials directing the decisions illusorily made by their technical staffs, this process failed to stem the avalanche of new starts. So an interesting question is: Has anyone bothered to conduct an alternatives analysis on the $58B being committed to rail? The answer is “yes." I just did. What I didn’t do is complete the vision of what could be done with 174,000 motorcoaches and buses, much less if they were simply given away, as grants, to operators whose businesses would thrive (and allow them to offer service at lower fares) because vehicle amortization would not have to be recovered from their revenues.

Multiple Mistakes and Decline

My personal jadedness about public transportation actually began in 1982 when I began to examine the ignorant and wasteful uses to which these services were put, and the hostility to innovation and cost savings I experience as I designed, evaluated and operated a range of transportation modes. Afraid that other sectors of our economy were likely as incompetent, greedy and corrupt, I was absolutely certain that America as I knew it would never last until the year 2000, and the introduction of digital technology in the early 90s only reinforced this belief. Since 2008, with the revelation of the sub-prime mortgage scam, hedge fund scams (that repackaged toxic loans into doomed investments which the hedge fund managers sold to their duped clients and then ran down to hall to effectively bet against them in the “high-low” mechanisms these same companies provided), it is becoming apparent to at least a small and thankfully growing population that America is not what it used to be. I am not talking of my childhood, when the police would climb a ladder to get your cat out of a tree, when live Earthlings would answer the telephone, and when anyone wishing to work could find a job, where products had to work before they reached the market, and when you could easily and automatically get your money back when you returned a product, defective or otherwise. I am talking more about a time when we were a value-oriented society (like Europe still is, which if why voting actually works there) rather than a money-oriented society.

Obviously, our nation’s past is cluttered with plenty to be ashamed up: Slavery, the suppression of minorities and women, the large-scale slaughter of civilians in wars, countries invaded for disingenuous reasons (like fighting the cold war, which pretty much dissolved by itself when those in charge realized they could rape the economy far worse through the process of voting), and of course the havoc we wreaked on our environment by extensive pollution, defoliation, strip-mining, the failure to develop viable non-petroleum-based fuels, and the long-distance shipment of “industrial food.” But we have also made strides – particularly during the brief period between 1965 and 1973, after which our first energy crisis enlightened corporations about their power (actually, the stock market controls fuel costs now), and when unwittingly, the leviathan of Gloria Steinem opened the doors to an economic model whereby both spouses would now be forced to work while their employers evolved to pay each of them only half of what the single spouse preceding them earned. (After all, a couple needed only the same, single house as a single wage-earner.)

In terms of digging our way out of our current mess, because two percent of our population pretty much owns the country (and most of its representatives), the success of our stock market has become the barometer for satisfaction with our “progress.” Of course, no one stops to think that the principal ways to increase profits, and crank up stock values, are to (a) outsource labor, and (b) over-automate. So when our journalist and political “pundits” seem puzzled by the fact that the growth in Wall Street had not translated into improvements in Main Street, it is clear that we are being buffaloed. These individuals cannot possibly be so stupid as to not recognize these interrelationships

The Leadership Vacuum

Few individuals or organizations have been able to impede the juggernaut of America’s collapse – after all, when things become intolerable here, those who own America are really globalists, and bodyguards or otherwise, merely need to jump into their Lear’s and fly away to their homes in Gstadt, London, Zurich or their more exotic retreats in Dubai or the Caribbean – from where they will continue to own America and reap continued profits from its collapse. But much of this is that single industries, like our relatively small and barely noticeable or talked-about motorcoach industry, has failed to educate the voters-at-large, such as they are, of the folly of spending $58B on a form of transportation whose costs could be spent far more efficiently and effectively on a more balanced transportation system. (In truth, it would probably be better spent on creating better and more teachers.) While we may not expect our President, who’s obsession appears to be that he wants to be liked, to put away the crayons, we should be working with better tools. If a handful of college students in Egypt and Tunisia can bring down an entire government with a few tools like Facebook and Twitter, why it is that our industry cannot get our message out? Who is speaking for our industry? What are they saying? To whom are they talking?

While I am certainly not betting on it, the only way our country can expect to remain even the Second World country it has become (38th in education, 55th in healthcare, etc.) is for each small sector to ensure that the decisions made it its area are sound. So far, we have failed to do this, and the $58B high-speed rail project is only another glaring example of this failure. America will not sink because it is struck by an asteroid. It will sink because of thousands of small failures, sector by sector, in addition to the ridiculous distribution of wealth that drives most of our decisions.

As the lobbyists inside the “beltway” say, “in a democracy you get what you deserve, and you deserve what you get.” It is always a sad reminder every time a new boondoggle comes along to prove this postulate true.

New Mantra

If we cannot actually do anything to stop the extraordinary and irreversible waste of money to which we have just committed, at least we can voice our objections about it. I think our industry’s response to this boondoggle – one that might shake up a few people who can actually think clearly – should be shouting from the rooftops (or on Facebook and Twitter) “One Hundred Seventy Four Thousand Buses. Think what we could do!”

While I hope to live a long life, I would also like to die before the U.S. motorcoach industry has become a distant memory. Maybe I will get lucky. Sometimes, dreams do come true. But where we are headed, I doubt there will be any other outcome.

Publications: National Bus Trader.